Transmedia Journalism 101

I fully intended to write an article about interactive websites.  I ended up on a really interesting and new (to me) side street.

The Search for a Defining Term

What was referred to as an interactive website had been recommended to our grad j-school class for discussion.  The site was produced by a University of North Carolina journalism school group called Powering A Nation.  Since 2009, this mostly-student-run group has experimented with new and dynamic ways to report on complex issues surrounding energy.  This year’s project, 100 Gallons, explores water availability and use.  I think it’s terrific.

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It’s terrific because in the time I took to explore all the videos, text pieces, graphs, charts, etc., I felt a new depth of knowledge and appreciation for the subject.  I wanted to look through all the media they had to offer.  I wasn’t tempted to give up and check Facebook or Twitter.  I learned lot of things about water.  And I really CARED about water in a new way.  How did a bunch of images and sounds on my screen do that?

That’s the question that sparked my inquiry. The 100 Gallons site was variously referred to as an interactive, a documentary, a film, a presentation, a special report, and an experiment in journalistic storytelling, according to the “About” pages for the Powering A Nation project. With so many different descriptors, my initial research into what 100 Gallons IS felt directionless.  I needed a single, real term that would define this type of journalism and allow me to find discussions and examples.  All the definitions for these terms did not fully define what this project encompassed.

Stumbling Over Transmedia

While wandering all over cyberland trying to make sense of what 100 Gallons is, I came across a term and definition that I think really brings together what this and other similar sites/projects/interactives should be called:  Transmedia Journalism. The term “transmedia” has been around for a while in entertainment media.  In her 1991 book, “Playing With Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games,” Marsha Kinder coined the term to describe a form of telling a single story using various digital media formats.  It has since come to be called “transmedia storytelling,” warranting its own Wikipedia page  and TED Talks event.

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A well-known example of transmedia storytelling is the Harry Potter phenomenon; multiple media platforms – books, movies, websites, toys, and a theme park attraction – all add elements to a single universal story in which participants can become immersed at many levels.

Meet the Guru

For veteran photojournalist and educator Kevin Moloney, it’s a short walk from transmedia storytelling to transmedia journalism.  Moloney, now considered the guru of transmedia journalism, wrote a scholarly paper in 2011 titled “Porting Transmedia Storytelling Into Journalism,” and has since started a blog and Twitter feed to promulgate new research findings in this emerging arena.

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According to Moloney, “transmedia journalism is designing a project to unfold across multiple media in an expansive rather than repetitive way. A transmedia project explores a space that contains multiple characters who can each tell multiple stories. It’s a space that you can draw a border around.  In journalism this could be a physical space like a neighborhood, a social space like a community, or an issue space like immigration or climate change.”

The interconnected stories would take advantage of different forms of media — text, audio, video, etc. — as each type of media can tell stories in unique ways. Stories should use the media form that best fits that story should be told, then distributed in multiple ways.  The Web and mobile are powerful channels as they can display many of the media forms.”

Moloney sums up the power of transmedia journalism this way: “By telling interconnected stories we can embrace the nuance and complexity that exists in any story world. Through multiple forms we can engage the different parts of our story-loving brains. By distributing them across varying channels we can target the audiences that really matter.”

Powerful Example – Goa Hippy Tribe

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Goa Hippy Tribe is a transmedia journalism project that follows the history of a group of people who gathered on the western shore of India in the 1960s to live communally as hippies.  Australian filmmaker Darius Devas, whose parents were members of the tribe, started the project when his parents and other Goa veterans began reuniting via Facebook.  The project evolved to incorporate various media forms, but centered around historical film of the group, new video interviews of the group today, and a Facebook interface that allows the user to “join” the tribe.

My take on the site:  Having experienced the site, I now have a deeper insight into the allure of the hippy culture of the ’60s, the excesses that doomed the movement, and the remnants that remain in those who lived through the era.  The sum of the multiple parts add up to a  denser whole picture of the topic

The site follows Moloney’s list of transmedia journalism elements: the story unfolds across multiple media expansively, it explores a social and physical space, contains interconnected characters telling multiple stories, and uses many different forms of media in one digital package.

Powerful Example – Top Secret America

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Top Secret America is a transmedia journalism project produced by the Washingon Post.  The project started as a series of investigative reports by Post reporters about the expansion of the US intelligence community and the outsourcing of services to private companies.  The reports took two Pulitzer-winning journalists and a dozen researchers nearly two years to complete.  The newspaper stories spawned a book, a PBS Frontline episode, and finally a transmedia website.  The site complies the articles, video, charts, maps, and searchable data bases.

My take on the site:  The developments this site chronicles are part of recent history, but the depth and detail offered here tell a complex story much richer than what was gleaned from living through the era.  A great subject for a transmedia project.

Powerful Example – Storify and the Saga of Karen Klein

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In June 2012, 68-year-old grandmother Karen Klein was working as a school bus monitor in upstate New York.  As extraordinarily rude middle-schoolers taunted and insulted her, a student recorded the incident with a smartphone.  When the video went viral on YouTube, thousands of empathetic viewers donated to a fund for Klein.  The fund organizer had hoped to garner a few hundred dollars to reward Klein with a well-deserved vacation.  The fund collected over $700,000, which Klein used to pay off debts and start an anti-bullying foundation.

Ben Doernberg, a Wesleyan University journalism student, was motivated by the Klein story and began using the online app Storify to create a quick-and-easy transmedia story just days after the video hit the internet.  Storify is a service that allows users to search through most social media sites, find content, and then drag elements into a timeline to create a story.  Users can reorder elements, add text, and inbed urls to create a context.  Doernberg’s Storify story, which he added to over the course of the last year, became the most viewed story in the app’s history — over 3.2 millions views.

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My take on the site:  Storify is a great way to start building a story fast and easy.  It can allow for a transmedia experience using already existing elements on social media, which can illuminate recent or breaking stories.

The Last Word

Transmedia Journalism has great potential to deepen meaning and illuminate worthy stories.  Kevin Moloney gets the last word — his manifesto for transmedia journalism:

“We journalists need to find the public across a very diverse mediascape rather than expecting them to come to us. The days of the captive journalism audience are over, and if we hope to serve our ideals of democracy, human rights, environment and positive social change, we need to find a broad public.

“To make our stories salient we need to engage the public in ways that fit those particular media. We lose an opportunity to reach new publics and engage them in different ways when we simply repurpose the same exact story for different (multi) media. Why not use those varying media and their individual advantages to tell different parts of very complex stories? And why not design a story to spread across media as a single, cohesive effort?”

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